Nick Drake made music that is as good as music can get.
As I've said elsewhere,
His work is holy, haunting, enveloping, wise, mystical, graceful and complete. It can float over you on a balmy summer's evening making you feel like a petal spinning on a warm breeze, and yet be right in there with you articulating your thoughts on the darkest of lonely nights.
It goes right into you now and yet - and this is the real magic - it somehow feels just as much in you even when you change, it sort of becomes part of you and grows with you. It achieves what the greatest art achieves, it makes us feel understood, it shows us new ways to see, it informs and affirms.
Nick Drake's potent legacy only increases its power as time goes by. He was so unnoticed at the time that there was only one interview done, and there is no video footage of him at all (except for family cine film of him on a beach as a child).
Most dead musicians have had their back catalogue plundered, and whilst Drake's has been comparitively well handled, it's still left a lot to be desired.
The 1979 box set Fruit Tree was subtitled 'the complete works'. It was nothing of the sort.
The 1985 box set, confusingly also titled Fruit Tree, included a new out-takes album Time of No Reply that added ten new tracks to the canon (three new versions, seven completely unreleased songs). Sadly this one has been allowed to go out of print.
Last year's Made To Love Magic was something of a letdown. It gave us seven new tracks, and six lifted straight from Time of No Reply. When the combined tracks would fit on one CD, leaving half of Time of No Reply deleted was inexcusable; equally, making Drake heads splash out on an album they'd already got half of was a swindle. It's made worse when you know there are great songs of Nick's that have never been released.
Fortunately there's the rather pricey but extremely comprehensive Time Has Told Me bootleg CD. Here's three tracks from it.
Blossom is a Drake composition, from a home tape predating his studio work, probably early 1968. The intricate guitar style, warm vocal tone, use of nature imagery and metaphor, and the bittersweet emotional terrain are all already there.
The other two are Richard Hewson's arrangements. He was hired to arrange several tracks on Nick's debut Five Leaves Left, but the versions were rejected and Nick convinced the production team to get his friend Robert Kirby in instead.
The only arrangement of Hewson's to officially see the light of day was I Was Made To Love Magic on Time of No Reply. The others were rumoured to be lost or even never recorded. However, Time Has Told Me proves otherwise with The Thoughts of Mary Jane and Day is Done.
Whilst Kirby's arrangements give a stark quality and timelessness to the work that's way above Hewson's talent, I do feel that Hewson's versions have been rather unfairly denigrated. ‘Disney’ is the pejorative commonly used, but this is wide of the mark.
Hewson’s work has a sense of English whimsy with a baroque undercurrent in keeping with others of the time, such as Donovan’s Jennifer Juniper, or David Bowie’s Deram material. And certainly, Robert Kirby’s arrangement of The Thoughts of Mary Jane is at least as light, floaty and whimsical as anything Hewson did.
I don't think it's helpful to tell you which version is 'best' though. The different versions illuminate different aspects of the song, and in doing so offer better insight into Nick’s work.
Robin Frederick, who wrote Been Smoking Too Long which Nick covers on Time of No Reply, has written several great articles about how his music works to captivate us. They're quite technical, but this doesn't do the appreciation of the work any harm, quite the reverse.
As she says herself, 'to think that what's important about Nick Drake is his dark romanticism is like thinking what's important about Brian Wilson is surfing'.
The story doesn’t quite end here. There are more recordings in the vaults, and there’s talk of a new album, provisionally titled Family Tree, which will contain much of the stuff from Time Has Told Me and possibly some songs by Nick’s mother Molly which have been described as ‘odd and haunting’ and apparently had strong influence on her son’s work.
[MP3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]